Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2020

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Poet and reggae recording artist, Johnson is the second living poet and the first black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

·       Judges praised Johnson’s work, saying ‘few post-war figures have been as unwaveringly committed to political expression in their work.’

Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020. He will receive the award in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October, where he will deliver an address.

Linton Kwesi Johnson was chosen by this year’s judges: The Guardian’s Associate Editor for Culture and English PEN trustee Claire Armitstead; Dialogue Books Publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, and author Max Porter.

Claire Armitstead said: ‘Once we had laid our nominations on the table, it took all of two seconds to agree that we had a clear and outstanding winner for the PEN Pinter Prize 2020. Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational. His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque, as is the humour with which he pursues them.’

Max Porter said: ‘I can think of few people who more clearly embody the power of poetry to enact change. Few post-war figures have been as unwaveringly committed to political expression in their work. He has been fearless, and relentless, but tragically his message is now more important than ever, given the Windrush scandal and the ongoing systemic demonisation of the immigrant population and racial minorities in the UK.’

Sharmaine Lovegrove said: ‘I feel I came into the world with the sound of political and cultural activism from Linton Kwesi Johnson work ringing in my ears. His powerful words and energetic passion have guided me and many others to always interrogate and push forwards against the status quo. It’s been a honour to judge the PEN Pinter Prize this year and an greater honour to be part of the collective awarding the prize to a living legend.’

Linton Kwesi Johnson said: ‘Having received a Golden PEN award from English PEN in 2013, I was surprised to learn that, seven years later, I have now been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize. Awards are the nourishment of every artist’s ego. It is always nice to be acknowledged. It is especially gratifying to receive an award that honours the memory of esteemed dramatist, Harold Pinter, free thinker, anti-imperialist and human rights champion. I would like to thank English PEN and the judges for their kind consideration in honouring me again.’

The PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 by the charity English PEN, which defends freedom of expression and celebrates literature, in memory of Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter. The prize is awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit resident in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.

Lady Antonia Fraser, Harold Pinter’s widow, said: ‘On what would have been Harold’s 90th birthday, this is the perfect way to mark the memory of Harold because, like him, the PEN Pinter Prize combines respect for great writing with an unquenchable concern for human rights.’

During the virtual ceremony in October, Linton Kwesi Johnson will announce his co-winner, the International Writer of Courage 2020, selected from a shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN. The recipient will be an international writer who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty. The PEN Pinter Prize 2019 was awarded to writer Lemn Sissay, who shared the prize with Ethiopian writer, blogger and democracy activist Befeqadu Hailu.

Former winners of the PEN Pinter Prize are: Lemn Sissay (2019), Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2018), Michael Longley (2017), Margaret Atwood (2016), James Fenton (2015), Salman Rushdie (2014), Tom Stoppard (2013), Carol Ann Duffy (2012), David Hare (2011), Hanif Kureishi (2010) and Tony Harrison (2009). Former International Writers of Courage have been: Befeqadu Hailu (2019), Waleed Abulkhair (2018), Mahvash Sabet (2017), Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury a.k.a.Tutul (2016), Raif Badawi (2015), Mazen Darwish (2014), Iryna Khalip (2013), Samar Yazbek (2012), Roberto Saviano (2011), Lydia Cacho (2010) and Zarganar (Maung Thura) (2009).

Linton Kwesi Johnson was born on 24 August 1952 in Chapelton in Clarendon in rural Jamaica. He came to London in 1963, went to Tulse Hill secondary school and studied Sociology at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London. Whilst at school he joined the Black Panthers, helped to organise a poetry workshop within the movement and developed his work with Rasta Love, a group of poets and drummers. In 1977 he was awarded a C Day Lewis Fellowship, becoming the writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year. He went on to work as the Library Resources and Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre, the first home of black theatre and art.

Johnson’s poems first appeared in the journal Race Today. In 1974 Race Today published his first poetry collection, Voices of the Living and the DeadDread Beat An’ Blood was published in 1975 by Bogle-L’Ouverture and was also the title of his first LP released by Virgin (1978). That year also saw the release of the film Dread Beat An’ Blood, a documentary on Johnson’s work. In 1980 Race Today published Inglan Is A Bitch and there were four more albums with Island: Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980), LKJ in Dub (1981) and Making History (1983).

Johnson launched his own label, LKJ Records, in 1981 with two singles by Jamaican poet Michael Smith, ‘Mi Cyaan Believe It’ and ‘Roots’. During the 1980s he became immersed in journalism, working with the Brixton-based Race Today collective. His ten-part radio series on Jamaican popular music, From Mento to Lovers Rock, went out on BBC Radio 1 in 1982-83. From 1985-88 he was a reporter on Channel 4’s The Bandung File. He also toured regularly with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band and produced albums by poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and jazz trumpeter Shake Keane.

Recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, LKJ Live in Concert with the Dub Band came out in 1985 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Tings An’ Times (1991) was also the title of his Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books/LKJ Music Publishers). In 1992 LKJ and Dennis Bovell collaborated on LKJ in Dub: Volume Two. In 1996 LKJ Records released LKJ Presents, a compilation of various artists, and LKJ A Cappella Live, a collection of 14 LKJ poems without music. In 1998 More Time celebrated his 20th anniversary in the recording business. Island also put out a two-CD compilation, Independant Intavenshan. In 2002 Johnson became only the second living poet and the first black poet to be published in Penguin’s Modern Classics series with his book Mi Revalueshanary Fren; it has since become part of Penguin’s Selected Poets. In the USA, the collection was published by Ausable, now Copper Canyon. In 2002 the BBC made a TV programme about LKJ’s poetry for BBC 4’s Profile and Johnson released LKJ in Dub: Volume Three. To mark his 25thanniversary as a reggae recording artist in 2004, LKJ released a CD and DVD of LKJ Live in Paris with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band. 

Linton Kwesi Johnson has toured globally, from Japan to the new South Africa, from Europe to Brazil and the Antipodes. His recordings are amongst the world’s top-selling reggae albums and his work has been translated into Italian and German. He is known and revered as the world’s first reggae poet. He is a Trustee of the George Padmore Institute and the 198 Gallery, two London-based independent charities with a focus on the cultural and political contributions made by the UK’s populations of colour.

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